Been on your phone a lot more lately? You’re not alone. A surge in screen time is just one of the many changes that have upended daily life around the globe in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our increased device usage has many contributing factors, from engaging with a constant barrage of texts coming from friends, family, co-workers and group threads old and new, to a news-checking addiction fueled by local and national updates on the novel Coronavirus that barrage us each day.
“From a psychological perspective, in terms of how our stress response works, our brains don’t discriminate between our physical surroundings and our virtual realities,” says Deanna Kaplan, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona. “So news, texts, social media are very real in the sense that, although we are physically safe, we may not feel safe.”
While taking care of our physical health is of the utmost importance in this era, experts like Kaplan say that we should also be prioritizing our mental health. And although there’s a pervasive feeling of uncertainty in these extraordinary times, when it comes to our devices, experts say there are a few simple steps we can take to improve our mental wellbeing while we weather the Coronavirus storm.
Use Your Device Intentionally
Dr. Dana Rose Garfin is an assistant adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in trauma, disasters, psychiatric epidemiology and social psychology, among other fields.
“It’s really important to be mindful of how you’re using technology,” Garfin says. “I think right now, while we’re doing this social distancing, especially for some of us in areas that are on lockdown, leveraging technology to combat feelings of isolation is going to be really important, but at the same time, we know from research that people’s attention span is lower now than it used to be. So if you’re home trying to work and you’re checking all of these things, it makes you really unproductive.”
How to stay on track?
According to Dr. Julie L. Pike, licensed psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., asking yourself a simple question is the key to intentionally engaging with your phone, especially in a time of crisis.
“The first thing is a very practical question to ask yourself: ‘Is what I’m looking at and what I’m reading making me feel better or worse?’” Pike says. She adds that identifying whether we value what we are engaging with in the moment is a vital part of cultivating healthy habits around device usage.
According to Kaplan, communicating too often in a time of crisis can lead to misperceptions of reality, making it vitally important to design your approach to correspondence in a way that prioritizes your mental health.
“There’s something called fear contagion,” Kaplan says. “When we’re in conversation with people who are very scared and anxious about a situation, and the worst-case scenario becomes all we’re thinking and talking about, then we’re not being present with what the situation actually is. There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks or stepping away completely from social media or text threads.”
A big part of this mindful approach to communication involves creating a strategy for your digital correspondence.
“I would be mindful and set a structure for how often you’re going to reply, and maybe put your phone in a drawer for [certain] hours,” Garfin says. “We feel compelled to respond right away now because we’re just sitting at our houses, but that’s still a choice to respond. We might be doing other things, like cooking or working. It’s really hard to read a book if you’re answering texts the whole time. Set time to check emails and put limits on notifications so you can concentrate, and so you’re not constantly checking and constantly responding.”
For Pike, managing digital communication comes down to interacting as much as you can in a purposeful manner — “not just texting back immediately when someone texts you.”
In addition to putting quantitative parameters around correspondence, there are a couple of ways to set qualitative boundaries around your digital communication, according to Kaplan. “One thing to do is plan socially distanced interactions that aren’t focused on the pandemic, so playing games, watching movies,” she says. “That way we can keep interacting with people that are important to us, but let those interactions have more of a positive focus.”
Of course, just as important as setting boundaries around your digital correspondence is effectively communicating them: “Communicate your structure around your device use,” Pike says. “It’s part of good communication to let people know what they can expect from us.”
Still, it’s sometimes not so easy to express our preferred communication structure to everyone in our lives.
“It of course is hard to say to your mom, ‘Don’t text me,’ but in many situations, it is appropriate to say, ‘I’m homeschooling my child right now and trying to hold down my job, so I can really only text with you about this between 5 and 7 p.m.’, for example,” Kaplan says. “This is really important right now, because normal boundaries around technology are a little bit more blurred than they usually are.”
Setting and clearly communicating boundaries can also put us in a better position to help others in a time of such great need.
“The only way we can truly take care of the people we really care about is to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves,” Kaplan adds.
Know When to Hit Pause on the “Like” Button
“I’m very cautious with my own social media,” Pike says, adding that before hopping onto her social accounts, she asks herself what she is looking for when she gets on social media, and whether she’s looking to connect or looking for information to make her feel better.
Setting time limits around checking the news is equally important, Kaplan says.
“The situation is changing quickly, but not so quickly that you need to check the news all the time,” she adds, noting that checking the news one to two times per day should suffice to stay informed in a healthy way.
Pike says that she personally limits her news exposure to once a day in the morning after she has meditated. (This “Zen Guide to Using Your Device” offers some good advice to help you achieve better mobile mindfulness.)
“I get one global briefing on email and I read that, and then I get one local report,” she says. “Then I know pretty much what’s going on in the world.”
Garfin says that we should set some parameters about how often we’re allowing ourselves to “go down the rabbit hole of checking the online news sources” constantly.
“You can check the news in the morning, maybe allow yourself to check it at your lunch break, and check it at night,” she says. “You don’t need to know much more about it than that.”
The best way to do this? It’s all about finding “stop points” when it comes to consuming news digitally.
“I would encourage people to be mindful to create stop points, like when you used to read a newspaper, you’d get to the end of the paper, so you’d put it aside or recycle it, and that’s a natural stop point,” Garfin says. “But if you’re reading the news online right now, you can click, click, click, and there’s no stop point.”
Make Sure the Screen Goes Unseen
Both Pike and Garfin stress the importance of setting and sticking to a screen time routine, especially in such an uncertain global environment.
“For families, having meals without phones is really important,” Pike says. “It’s really important to put your phone down for three hours before you go to bed; and not having a screen in your bedroom is so important because LED screens stimulate your limbic brain, your fight-flight center, so that causes you to wake up. The night mode is a good start, but it’s not the same as being off your phone completely.”
Garfin reiterates the importance of mindfulness when it comes to setting our screen time routine and sticking to it: “Put your phone on silent. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Create a schedule. That way you can get engaged in the flow of your work, or even reading a book, or watching a movie or cooking. To stay engaged with your life.”
For even more advice on how to keep your screen time in check, we’ve put together a few additional tips together here: “Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?”